(Don't) Blame it on the Piano
(Originally published in the fall 2009 The Threepenny Review)
“We have a wonderful white piano for you.” This is probably the worst thing a pianist can hear from a promoter; white pianos are notoriously uncared for, usually only trotted out for cheesy Las Vegas shows or for somebody like Liberace. Few concert pianists of repute would dare perform on a white instrument, even if it was a well-tuned and regulated Steinway. Most would even refuse to play a handsome, wood-grained piano: Only the ebony finish will do.
The one time I was offered a white piano it was just as bad as expected. However, it would be silly for me to be unnecessarily picky about instruments. The Bad Plus plays something like 150 gigs in 150 different cities a year. Every one of these gigs is important, and to keep my sanity intact, I just can’t worry about pianos. Experience has taught me to be a bit indifferent to the instrument. You show up to play: there’s a piano: you play the piano: tomorrow is another day.
When I first sit down at the instrument I try to be as friendly and non-judgmental as possible. This is my partner for the night and we need to get through it together. There are a few practical things to check, like making sure that the pedals work OK. I often warm-up and practice without any pedals, so sometimes I forget to survey their condition -- a big mistake! Once I accompanied Schubert lieder with a wheezing squeak from the damper pedal that could have easily been fixed with WD-40.
A truly beautiful piano is found by listening to the length of sustain and beauty of tone from the articulation of one note. Very few pianos hold up to this test. (I play two or three a year that do.) More practically, the amount of pressure needed to depress the key is the most obvious variable, but the “dip” (the place in the keybed where the key trips the hammer) is also important and no pianist can function well on a piano with lazy “repetition” (the speed of hammer return). “Regulation” (the consistency of action throughout the 88 keys) and “voicing” (the way those 88 keys sound next to other and swim in the overtone series) are also crucial. Really, though, the number one requirement I have is that the piano holds its tuning well.
Rarely am I actually distracted by the instrument. I have only canceled a show once, at a rock club in Williamsburg where the sustain pedal on the beat-up piano wouldn’t release, making every note and chord run into each other. There was nothing else to do but walk away. I did get really irritated with some chicanery in a small venue in Florida, where a particularly bad instrument was being absurdly praised to anyone who would listen. I couldn’t understand what was going on until mid-show, when the promoter came on to auction the piano off to raise money for the space.
Steinways are generally the best pianos, but they are also fussy and sensitive. Some full-size Yamahas and Kawaiis withstand the abuse of high-volume jazz festivals better. I silently apologized to the magnificent 9-foot Steinway that serviced the Red Sea Jazz Festival a few years ago in Eilat: left outdoors for a few days in the Israeli summer, the poor thing died on the vine. For a recent New York performance at the Bowery Ballroom I was privileged to use a Fazioli borrowed from friends at Klavierhaus. It was a rare case of the piano making a serious difference to our show: I got sounds from the bottom of the massive Fazioli that had never been heard in the Bowery before.
But even when presented with a no-name piano without proper regulation, voicing, and tuning, I still give my best. After all, in the jazz tradition, pianists have always had to make do. If your rhythm is strong and you have good ideas, you can play the gig on just about anything.
A few examples of canonical jazz records with outrageously out-of-tune pianos include Earl Hines’s 1928 solo recordings in Chicago, Bud Powell at Carnegie Hall with Miles Davis in 1949, Thelonious Monk’s Trio on Prestige, Paul Bley’s Footloose, The Jaki Byard Experience, The World of Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock on Charles Tolliver’s Paper Man, Keith Jarrett’s Somewhere Before, Cedar Walton’s Live at Boomers, etc. In every case, those musicians surmounted the mediocre conditions and produced masterpieces.
I keep those heroes in mind when confronted with surprises, like the time in a field in England where I played an electric piano that looked like an acoustic instrument (“Neil Sedaka endorses this model”).
Just last week, The Bad Plus performed in a seaside town in Spain. I’m certain that the small Yamaha was left outdoors once too often: the action was stiff, the keys had a grittiness that wouldn’t clean off and the wood even smelled of salt. Still, the band delivered our message to the audience without noticeable impediment. Afterwards, the promoter came up to me:
“How was the piano?”
“It was fine.”
“It’s really not very good, is it?”
“I’m sorry. There just aren’t that many pianos in this small town. But thank you for a wonderful concert anyway, and for bringing American jazz to us.”
It was a nice thing for him to say, and a good reminder of what an immense privilege it is to perform in the first place. As I say, I just can’t worry about pianos: I’m having too much fun.